Thursday, January 17, 2013

One miracle or two? Feeding the multitude



I decided to do something a little different for Bible study last night. We've been ploughing through St Mark's Gospel chapter by chapter, looking at it as it comes so to speak. I thought last night it might be interesting instead to look two different passages and compare them: the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand (you can find them both here). Specifically, I wanted the group to discuss whether they thought the passages were what is called a doublet or not (a doublet is where the two passages are essentially two different versions of the same incident).

Looking at the passage, we were disinclined to go with the doublet theory, while accepting that the vast amount of scholars seem to think it is. We thought this for a variety of reasons:

1. St Mark is far closer in time to his sources than we are. He would have known almost certainly if he was simply reworking the same material in two different versions. Yet not only does he include both, he actually indicates twice that they are separate incidents - once at the beginning of the 4000 where he says 'there was again a great crowd;' and a second time at the end of the passage when Jesus and the disciples are in the boat and Jesus refers quite clearly to these as being separate incidents.

2. The passages have similarities but they also have significant differences - should we simply ignore those (except to 'mine' them to see what differing theological emphases they might indicate)?

3. St  Mark's is the shortest of the Gospels and he is quite concerned with brevity. Why would he then retell the same story twice with minor changes?

4. Scholars put great stock in the fact that the disciples ask Jesus in the 4000 where they are to get bread when he tells them to feed the multitude. If they had seen it done before, they wouldn't need to ask this time, runs the argument. But St Mark is always trying to show that the disciples don't 'get it' about Jesus. In fact both passages end with St Mark pointing to their hardness of heart as to who he is and what he can do. It would be quite consistent with St Mark's portrayal that the disciples failed to realise that Jesus was quite capable of feeding a vast crowd in the dessert, even though they had witnessed a previous occasion ... they really hadn't understood the first time! Even after the 4000, in the boat, they think Jesus is talking about a lack of bread even though they have one loaf with them; one loaf would be more than enough for someone who can do what Jesus does ... if they understood what they had just witnessed.

5. Also, I think at least, that the tone of the asking is different in the two stories. In the 5000 their question is almost sarcastic: ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ In the 4000 they simply say: ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert? We don't actually know the time interval between the two stories and St Mark tends to compress the action. If the 5000 had taken place long before, months or even years, then their question at the 4000 might reflect the fact that while they knew Jesus could do it they didn't know if he would - it's not like he does this every time a crowd gathers. Also, the first time they have to go check how much bread is available; the second time they have the answer ready to hand, perhaps indicative they are ready just in case he asks them in order to 'go' with another miraculous feeding. 

All in all nothing earth shattering, nothing likely to get the scholars in a sweat and start revising those books and journals now. Just a simple country rector and a few parishioners expressing their opinion ... an opinion that just happens to come down in favour of the accuracy of St Mark over the scholars!

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